Unless you live in a cave, you may find it difficult to avoid hearing Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods” this year. The song – about Taylor’s troubled relationship with one of the members of One Direction – is a brilliantly crafted piece of pop music that has been covered by multiple singers and bands (including the Christian group For King and Country).
The music video for “Out of the Woods” debuted on New Year’s Eve and has already racked up more than 15 million views on YouTube. It features a kaleidoscope of scenes (mountain, woods, snow, ocean), with Taylor enduring distress as she fights to free herself from the challenges in her surroundings.
“Out of the Woods” is about a relationship on the rocks. It’s about trying to work through issues until restoration takes place. But the end of the music video has a twist.
When Taylor emerges from her struggle, all scuffed up and muddy, she walks forward to a pristine, unharmed Taylor-look-alike on the beach. As soon as she puts her hand on the identical woman’s shoulder, the song is over, and these words come on the screen:
She lost him.
But she found herself.
And somehow that was everything.
In a matter of minutes and in just a few words, Taylor Swift’s music video provides a popular-level version of what philosophers and sociologists call “expressive individualism.” It’s the idea that the purpose of life is to find and express your individuality. You “find yourself” by fighting through all the constraints placed upon you by others. The goal is to emerge triumphant, fully aware of your own unique essence, so you can express yourself to the world.
This is one of the dominant narratives of 21st century American culture, so it’s no surprise to see our musical icons telling this story through song.
“She lost him.” In other words, the relationship failed. They never made it out of the woods. In the case of most love stories and love songs, you’d think that means the song is sad, a lament of sorts.
Here’s the crucial turning point, the good news according to Taylor Swift. “She found herself.” Notice that the broken relationship isn’t a sad ending after all, because the failure is what enabled her to find herself. Emerging from the woods, Taylor sings about how the relationship died, but through this death she has come alive to her true self.
The end of “Out of the Woods” makes sense to people today. If the highest purpose of life is to discover yourself, then everything – including our relationships – must be reoriented to that view of self-discovery and self-exploration. The dissolution of the relationship is now a good thing if it prompts that crucial moment of self-discovery.
Why does this song by Taylor Swift resonate with people? Because, deep down, all human beings want to be totally known and totally loved. And the shortcut to being totally known and totally loved is to “know yourself” and “love yourself” – to no longer be dependent on anyone else for your happiness.
The end of “Out of the Woods” also appeals to the idea that all our troubles in life are part of a grander story of discovery. “And somehow that was everything.” The big story of self-discovery supersedes whatever heartache you’ve experienced.
But, like I said above, this is only a shortcut, and the happiness from such “self-discovery” is fleeting.
- How does Taylor Swift really know that she’s found herself?
- How does she know the look-alike on the beach isn’t just a mirage?
- Will her next relationship be simply another avenue for her to find more of herself?
Here, the core message of Christianity affirms the longing expressed in “Out of the Woods,” but challenges the solution the song provides.
Yes, the Bible says, there is a grander story of discovery that makes sense of all our trials. But that story is radically God-focused, not self-focused. It’s a story about God finding and saving unworthy sinners, not our own attempts to find and save ourselves. It’s discovering how God expresses Himself in grace to the world through the death of His Son, not how we express the worth we think we have in ourselves.
What’s more, Jesus once said something that sounds very counter-intuitive to our ears today. The one who finds their life will lose it, but the one who loses their life – for His sake – will find it.
Friends of mine who have followed Taylor Swift’s career tell me that her songs have followed a story arc. Her earliest songs could be summed up this way: I am searching for the right person who will fulfill me forever. Later, her songs turned to heartbreak: I am grieving the fact I may never find meaning in life and love. Now, her songs are a declaration: I have, in myself, everything I need to be happy.
The question now is whether she will arrive at a fourth stage: I’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places. That’s the stage where, by the grace of God, people who are looking for happiness might stop looking in and start looking up.
The gospel that calls us out of the woods of sin and brokenness rewrites those final lines from Taylor Swift’s music video. She lost herself. But she found Him. And somehow that was everything.